Canada: Analysis and implications for people with HIV following Supreme Court HIV non-disclosure decisions

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has published three important new resources in the aftermath of last month’s devastating Supreme Court decision which found that people living with HIV have a legal duty, under the criminal law, to disclose their HIV-positive status to sexual partners before having sex that poses a “realistic possibility” of HIV transmission.

Not disclosing in such circumstances means a person with diagnosed HIV could be convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

As well as a detailed analysis in a briefing paper (aussi disponible en français) and a shorter info sheet, the Legal Network has produced a very helpful – if depressing – Q&A for people living with HIV (aussi disponible en français) as well those who support and advise them.

It is clear from these analyses that the Supreme Court’s decisions are a major step backwards for human rights and for public health.

I am reproducing below the commentary from their briefing paper as well as the Q&A, with permission.  For the entire text, with footnotes and references, please visit the  Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network website.

Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network


HIV non-disclosure and the criminal law: An analysis of two recent decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada (R. v. Mabior, 2012 SCC 47, R. v. D.C., 2012 SCC 48)


On October 5, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decisions in the cases of Mabior and D.C. The Court decided that people living with HIV have a legal duty, under the criminal law, to disclose their HIV-positive status to sexual partners before having sex that poses a “realistic possibility” of HIV transmission. Not disclosing in such circumstances means a person could be convicted of aggravated sexual assault. In defining when there is a “realistic possibility” of transmission, the Court has set the bar very low. At this time, the only sex that the Court has recognized as not posing a realistic possibility of HIV transmission is vaginal sex that takes place when (1) a condom is used, AND (2) the person living with HIV has a low or an undetectable viral load. If both of these conditions are met, then there is no obligation under the criminal law to disclose one’s HIV status. However, the Court has not clarified how the requirement to disclose in the case of a “realistic possibility” of transmission applies to any sexual activity other than vaginal sex.


For people living with HIV and for those working in the field of HIV prevention and care, these decisions are a major step backward from the Supreme Court of Canada’s previous decision in Cuerrier. While the Court said it was maintaining the “significant risk” test it previously established in 1998, it has deprived the word “significant” of much meaning. A “significant risk” of transmission must now be understood as a “realistic possibility” of transmission, and the Court says this includes anything higher than a “negligible threshold” or anything more than a “speculative possibility.”

By deciding that there is a duty to disclose before vaginal sex unless both a condom is used and a person’s viral load is low (i.e., where the risk is almost zero), the Court effectively decided that almost any risk, no matter how small, could trigger a duty to disclose, even as the Court also declared that it did not want to criminalize “any risk, however small.” This was but one of numerous contradictions in the Court’s judgments in these cases. In essence, the Court purported to put some limit on the scope of the criminal law, but that limit was largely illusory.

The Supreme Court recognized that although the law must ensure that consent to sex is meaningful, “not every deception that leads to sexual intercourse should be criminalized.” It also stated that there must be a balance between a sexual partner’s interest in autonomy and equality in consenting to sex, which values are entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and “the need to confine the criminal law to conduct associated with serious wrongs and serious harms.” The Court further acknowledged that an overly broad use of the criminal law would be unfair and stigmatizing for people living with HIV, and that the experience of other common law jurisdictions “sounds a note of caution against extending the criminal law beyond its appropriate reach in this complex and emerging area of law.”

Yet despite these multiple warnings, the Supreme Court of Canada chose to expand the scope of the criminal law in cases of HIV non-disclosure and to clearly indicate that its new test of disclosure being required in the case of a “realistic possibility” of transmission is “specific to HIV.” Moreover, although the Court was clear that “[t]he potential consequences of a conviction for aggravated sexual assault … underline the importance of insisting on moral blameworthiness in the interpretation of [the law],” it failed to address the issue of the mens rea (i.e., “guilty mind”) required to obtain a conviction for HIV non-disclosure, as had been suggested by the coalition of AIDS organizations. As a result, based on the Court’s decisions in Mabior and D.C., a person who acts responsibly by taking highly effective precautions to protect their partner, and who has no intent to cause harm, can face charges of aggravated sexual assault.

Finally, the Court did say that the law should be open to “adapting to future advances in treatment.” Such advances could further affect both the risks of HIV transmission and the harm associated with HIV. But very significant advances have already taken place. When treatments are available, HIV is already a chronic and manageable disease. Moreover, the impact of treatment on dramatically reducing what are already very small risks is now well established. It is therefore unfortunate that the Court refused to consider this existing evidence about the impact of low viral load sufficient to preclude criminal charges.

In addition to its contradictory approach to assessing and criminalizing the risk of HIV transmission, the Court’s approach to consent was also deficient. The Court made a passing reference to an earlier, leading case (R. v. Ewanchuk) about when consent to sex is not valid; Ewanchuk concerned rape myths and situations where there was no real consent to sex because it was forced or because a person was afraid to refuse. The Court also repeatedly asserted that its approach in Mabior and D.C. was in line with the Charter values of equality and sexual autonomy.

But nowhere did the Court meaningfully analyze how the law protects personal autonomy and advances equality (i.e., specifically for women) by overriding the consent of an adult to engage in sex solely because of the absence of certain information they might prefer to know. The Court ignored the cases decided in Canada since Cuerrier on HIV non-disclosure and much of the analysis emerging from various other, similar jurisdictions where the trend is to limit the criminal law. Whether or not the Supreme Court wants to admit it, people do have sex without full and complete information about their sexual partners all the time — including in circumstances which can give rise to some risk of serious harm. Yet the law does not step in to all such circumstances to override consent and criminally prosecute the lack of disclosure of information.

Consenting adults are capable of deciding whether to have protected or unprotected sex without being aware of whether a particular partner does or does not have HIV or another sexually transmitted infection (STI), and do so often. Contrary to the Court’s basic assumption, sexually active adults are not deprived of their autonomy, including their ability to decide whether to practise safer sex, simply because they lack information about a sexual partner’s HIV or other STI status.

The Court also failed to consider the challenges associated with disclosure of a heavily stigmatized and misunderstood condition: repercussions can include loss of privacy, discrimination and rejection, and even violence. Lack of disclosure may not be about asserting force over another person in order to gain sexual gratification — which is the assumption behind equating it with aggravated sexual assault — so much as about protecting oneself from violence or other harm. By broadly asserting that this is about protecting the dignity and autonomy of the sexual partner without any examination of the range of factors at play when people have sex, the Court revealed a shallow understanding of the values that it purports to protect when criminalizing HIV non-disclosure, even in cases where the risk of transmission is miniscule. Such an approach trivializes sexual assault and diverts the law from protecting women’s physical and sexual autonomy.

In addition, the Supreme Court decisions in Mabior and D.C. did not provide much certainty in the law. There are many questions that remain unanswered and that will be tested in courts on the backs of people living with HIV. Do people have a duty to disclose before they engage in oral sex? What about those who have an undetectable viral load at the time they have oral sex? How do these decisions apply to anal sex?

Finally, these decisions further undermine public health and the rights of people living with HIV. They create additional disincentives to seek HIV testing and will discourage some people from talking with their counsellors and physicians about their sexual and disclosure practices, as medical and counselling records can be subpoenaed and used in criminal investigations.

The Court’s decisions will also disproportionally affect the most vulnerable. Access to treatment was once an issue of public health and social justice. Now it is also a criminal issue. People with inadequate access to care, treatment and support may not be able to establish a low viral load. If they do not or cannot disclose their status — including because of fear of violence or other negative consequences — they will be exposed to criminal conviction and imprisonment. Based on the Supreme Court of Canada’s judgments, a condom alone is not sufficient to avoid conviction.

The Court has put another tool for coercion into the hands of abusive partners. This can only exacerbate the vulnerability of HIV-positive people in abusive and/or violent relationships to blackmail and threats of prosecutions, an outcome that will disproportionately affect women living with HIV. In summary, the Court’s decisions in Mabior and D.C. make already bad and unclear law, which has resulted in uneven application and injustice in numerous cases, even worse — for people living with HIV, for HIV prevention and care efforts, and hence for public health.

Q&A: Implications of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions for people living with HIV


When do you have a legal duty to disclose your HIV-positive status to a sexual partner?

The Supreme Court of Canada says that you must disclose your status before having sex that poses “a realistic possibility of transmitting HIV.” But the Court also found that almost any risk is “realistic,” no matter how small. Based on the Court’s decisions, you have a legal duty to disclose:

▪ before having vaginal or anal sex* without a condom (regardless of your viral load); or

▪ before having vaginal or anal sex* with anything higher than a “low” viral load (even if you use a condom).

* See below for more information on the duty to disclose and anal sex.

In summary, either using a condom or having a low viral load is not enough to preclude criminal liability in cases of HIV non-disclosure when it comes to vaginal and anal sex.

When don’t you have a duty to disclose?

The Supreme Court of Canada was clear that you do not have a duty to disclose before having vaginal sex if (1) your viral load is low or undetectable and (2) you use a condom. Both of these are required.

▪ NOTE: Your viral load does not need to be “undetectable.” A “low” viral load is sufficient. What this means remains to be defined in subsequent cases. However, based on the Supreme Court of Canada decisions, it seems that it should at least include any viral load below 1500 copies of the virus per millilitre of blood.

What is still unclear?

There is still a lot of uncertainty in the law. Because the cases before the Supreme Court of Canada only dealt with HIV non-disclosure in the context of vaginal sex, it is not clear how the test of a “realistic possibility of transmission” will be applied to other sexual acts.

▪ What about anal sex?

Anal sex poses higher risks of transmission than vaginal sex, so the duty to disclose is at least as strict as for vaginal sex. In other words, you have a duty to disclose before having unprotected anal sex or when your viral load is higher than “low.” It might be the case that, as with vaginal sex, if you use a condom and your viral load is low, you don’t have a legal duty to disclose. But at this time, we can’t say for certain if satisfying both these requirements (condom use plus a low viral load) will be enough to avoid convictions in the case of anal sex.

▪ What about oral sex?

Oral sex (without a condom) is usually considered very low risk (i.e., an estimated risk ranging from 0 to 0.04%). We don’t know at this point whether courts will find that there is a duty to disclose before oral sex without a condom. We also don’t know whether it makes a legal difference if you are receiving or performing oral sex, or whether the amount of semen or vaginal fluid that the person performing oral sex is exposed to can make a legal difference.

What if you have a low or undetectable viral load AND use a condom but the condom breaks?

This is a very difficult question to answer and there are several factors that you should take into account:

▪ Although this issue was not addressed by the Supreme Court of Canada, you may have a duty to disclose in the case where a condom breaks.

▪ Disclosing your status after a condom breaks could be relevant to your sexual partner in deciding whether to seek “post-exposure prophylaxis” (PEP) with antiretroviral drugs to further reduce any risk of infection.

▪ But disclosure in such circumstances may also expose you to an increased risk of violence and/or threat of prosecutions. HIV continues to generate a lot of fear and misconception. Your partner may have a bad reaction if he or she discovers that you are HIV-positive after a condom breaks.

How can you protect yourself against prosecutions?

There is no guaranteed way to avoid being accused of HIV non-disclosure. People may lie or make mistakes about whether disclosure took place and/or whether a condom was used. But there are things you can do that may reduce the risk of criminal prosecutions or conviction for HIV non-disclosure.

▪ Tell your sexual partners that you are HIV-positive before sex, and try to get proof that you told them about your status (e.g., disclose your status in front of a witness before having sex, such as a counsellor or doctor, who can document that disclosure took place, or sign a joint document).

N.B.: Please be aware that any document that would establish that you had sex prior to disclosure might work against you. This could especially be the case if you had vaginal or anal sex before you first disclosed and, at the time of that sexual act, you did not use a condom or you cannot establish that your viral load was low or undetectable at that time.

▪ Use a condom when you have vaginal or anal sex and see a doctor regularly to create a record of your viral load test results showing lowered viral load.

Other important things to know about the Supreme Court of Canada decisions and the legal duty to disclose:

▪ There is no distinction between silence and a lie. People may face criminal charges for not disclosing their status whether their partners inquired about their HIV status or not.

▪ There is no distinction based on the circumstances of a particular encounter, including the type of relationship. People may face criminal charges whatever the type of relationship they had with their partner (e.g., whether with a casual partner versus a spouse) and whether the sex was for love, fun, money, procreation or drugs.

▪ People living with HIV can be prosecuted even if they had no intent to harm their partner.

▪ People living with HIV can be charged with aggravated sexual assault for not disclosing their status. An aggravated sexual assault is a sexual assault that “endangers the life” of the other person. It carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment of life and mandatory registration as a sexual offender.


The information contained [above] is information about the law, but it is not legal advice. For legal advice, please contact a criminal lawyer.

US: HIV Medicine Association calls for repeal of HIV-specific laws

The HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) has issued a strong statement urging the repeal of HIV criminalisation statutes in the United States.

The HIVMA statement, which represents physicians, scientists and other health care professionals across the United States, demands the following:

  • An end to punitive laws that single out HIV infection and other STIs and that impose inappropriate penalties for alleged non-disclosure, exposure and transmission
  • All state and federal policies, laws and regulations to be based on scientifically accurate information regarding HIV transmission routes and risk;
  • A federal review of all federal and state laws, policies, and regulations regarding the criminal prosecution of individuals for HIV-related offences to identify harmful policies and federal action to mitigate the impact of these laws, including the repeal of these laws and policies or guidance for correcting harmful policies; and
  • Promotion of public education and understanding of the stigmatising impact and negative clinical and public health consequences of criminalisation statutes and prosecutions.

The HIVMA statement is another extremely important development in the Positive Justice Project’s campaign to repeal HIV-specific criminal laws in the United States.

In March 2011, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) – a highly-respected organisation of public health officials that administer state and territorial HIV prevention and care programmes throughout the US – issued a similar statement.

The full HIVMA statement, which can be downloaded here, is published below.


(Approved: October 16, 2012)

The HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) represents physicians, scientists and other health care professionals who practice on the frontline of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. HIVMA strongly advocates public policies that are grounded in the science that has provided the tools and knowledge base to envision a world without AIDS.

Stigma and discrimination continue to be major impediments to the comprehensive response necessary to address the HIV public health crisis. Policies and laws that create HIV-specific crimes or that impose penalties for persons who are HIV- infected are unjust and harmful to public health around the world.

In the U.S., HIV criminalization has resulted in unacceptable human rights violations, including harsh sentencing for behaviors that pose little to no risk of HIV transmission. Thirty-two states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes. Thirty-two states have arrested or prosecuted individuals with HIV infection for consensual sex, biting and spitting. These laws and prosecutions unfairly target individuals with HIV infection and are not based on the latest scientific knowledge regarding HIV transmission, including the finding that transmission risk from biting or spitting is negligible.

Individuals with HIV infection can live healthy lives and approach near normal life expectancies with access to HIV care. Early diagnosis and effective management of HIV infection not only improves clinical outcomes for infected individuals but significantly reduces their risk of transmitting the virus to others. Laws that criminalize HIV infection discourage individuals from learning their HIV status and from receiving care. In doing so, they jeopardize the lives of HIV-infected individuals and place more individuals at risk of contracting an infectious disease that remains fatal if untreated.

HIV-specific criminalization fuels the stigma associated with HIV infection that slows efforts to combat the disease. Despite the availability of highly effective treatment for HIV infection, of the 1.1 million individuals living with HIV infection in the U.S., nearly 20 percent remain undiagnosed, only 37 percent are in care and just 25 percent have undetectable levels of the virus in their blood which makes it unlikely for them to be infectious to others.

All individuals must take responsibility for protecting themselves from HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). All persons engaging in unprotected or potentially risky sexual behavior are encouraged to discuss and disclose HIV and STI status except in situations where disclosure poses a risk of harm.

HIVMA Position: 

HIVMA urges a coordinated effort to address and repeal unjust and harmful HIV criminalization statutes. We support the following:

  • An end to punitive laws that single out HIV infection and other STIs and that impose inappropriate penalties for alleged nondisclosure, exposure and transmission;

    All state and federal policies, laws and regulations to be based on scientifically accurate information regarding HIV transmission routes and risk;

  • A federal review of all federal and state laws, policies, and regulations regarding the criminal prosecution of individuals for HIV-related offenses to identify harmful policies and federal action to mitigate the impact of these laws, including the repeal of these laws and policies or guidance for correcting harmful policies; and
  • Promotion of public education and understanding of the stigmatizing impact and negative clinical and public health consequences of criminalization statutes and prosecutions.


Norway: Dissenting Law Commission member, Kim Fangen, ‘stands alone’

Last week’s publication of the Norwegian Law Commission’s disappointing report was “a crucial moment for us in Norway – actually for all HIV activists in the Nordic countries,” says Kim Fangen, the only member of the Commission to vote against the use of a specific law to control and punish people with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Kim’s alternative vision, as detailed in Chapter 10 of the report (only available in the full Norwegian version, not the English summary, but translated into English by the HIV Justice Network and included in full below) is one of a supporting and enabling environment, where people living with HIV are seen as part of ‘the solution’ and not ‘the problem.’

“It is not through criminal law that we reduce the spread of HIV,” he writes. “I believe that HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are solely a health issue. That’s where the focus should and must be, if one wants to prevent more infections. This means that we must change our mindset and change our course from criminal regulation to a health-related approach.”

His solution is a uniqely Norwegian version of the new paradigm of HIV prevention for people living with HIV, known as Positive, Health, Dignity and Prevention –  a comprehensive approach to supporting people living with HIV with their prevention and social needs, not through fear or coercion but through empowerment and with dignity.  Much of the solution is already there in Norway’s HIV Action Plan – but as Kim notes, with a few exceptions, little of the plan has actually been actioned.

In his first interview since the Commission report was released, Kim tells the HIV Justice Network how he feels about the report and what the rest of us can do to help effect a change for the better to mitigate the Nordic region’s overly harsh and punitive approaches to people living with HIV.

Q: As the only person openly living with HIV on the twelve person Commission, what did you hope to achieve?

When I was asked to be asked to be part of the Norwegian Law Commission, I was very happy and proud.  I, and many of my friends and colleagues living with HIV, believed it was a promising sign that they had reserved one of the Commission’s twelve seats for someone living with HIV.

I actually believed that there was a genuine will and desire to investigate the issues raised in our mandate and to produce recommendations that hopefully would point Norway in a new direction, towards decriminalising potential HIV ‘exposure’ and unintentional transmission.

I did not think that it would be easy, but I thought it would be possible. I honestly thought that finally there would be no need to single out people with HIV as group so hazardous that Norwegian society felt the need of a specific law to protect itself.

What I never envisaged was that, in the end, I would be standing alone.

Q: When did you realise that you point of view was not going to be supported by the rest of Commission?

It was quite early in the process. I realised that not only was it going to be difficult, but that I was quite alone not wanting a specific law.

I really feel that the reason for my inclusion on this Commission was not to learn more from those of us living with HIV, but was instead a kind of tokenism – by having a person living with HIV on board I believe they thought they would be able to silence us once and for all.

Q: What disappoints you the most about the report?

I cannot help feeling that a great opportunity has been lost and the goodwill of people with HIV misused. This is a sentiment I share with many of my friends and colleagues both at home and abroad. Many of us are so very disappointed. We honestly believed we would finally experience a change now,  just as we, ironically, are about to commemorate 30 years since the first Norwegian was diagnosed with HIV.

And so I am afraid that we will not get the debate we so desperately need. I worry that this report will provide politicians with easy solutions, something Norway will not benefit from.

Q: Is there anything positive in the report’s recommendations that you would like to highlight? For example, I was impressed by the recognition that people with HIV (and other communicable diseases) require “psychosocial support to enable them to handle the risk of infection properly, and assistance in dealing with any underlying problems such as mental illness or substance use.”

I’m glad that you pointed this out. I do feel that I have been listened to when I have spoken of supporting people living with HIV, and the clinics can do much more to help in guiding and strengthening each individual. This is the kind of work I am directly involved in myself.

Q: Do you think the report’s content and conclusions are completely consistent with Norway’s commitments to human rights and in terms of making laws based on evidence and not ideology?

No, I do not. I have on several occasions talked about our responsibility to practise what we preach. I do not think Norway is doing that.

Q: How might the report impact the rest of the Nordic region?

HIV and the law are being debated and discussed all over the Nordic region. All of the four countries are at different stages but our goals are the same, to end the overly broad criminalisation of HIV.

My hope is that Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway will join forces. We will be so much stronger if we pull together. Next year will we will be commemorating 30 years since Norway had its first HIV diagnosis.  We, in the newly-established HIV Patient Network will be using that to the fullest and, of course, criminalisation will be on top of the list.

Q: The process will take another 18 months before parliament decides on whether or not to enact or abolish a specific criminal law. What are your plans?

My only hope now is that the international response to this report will be so substantial, so clear, and so loud that it will have an impact on Norway’s politicians.

I am hoping to organise a joint Nordic meeting in Oslo sometime during 2013, preferably before the deadline for the hearing letter goes out, when we are still able to influence the process before it is finalised some time in 2014.

If we can thoroughly examine the situation in all of the Nordic countries, invite politicians, medical and legal practitioners, experts and specialists in fields like sexuality, ethics and human rights, as well as members of the international civil society, we should be able to strengthen our arguments and support those in office who actually can directly influence the debate.

In the meantime, for those who haven’t already signed the Oslo Declaration on HIV Criminalisation, please take a moment to read it and support our efforts. I would like thank everyone who contributed, who made this possible, and especially to the HIV Justice Network.  I know that it has already caused a stir in Norway, and I feel that there is so much more to gain from it. It’s like a tool that is still in its wrapping, and it has yet to reach its full potential.

Below is the full English translation of Kim’s submission to the Commission, outlining his alternative vision, from Chapter 10 of the report.

One of the committee members, Kim Fangen, lives with HIV and has been involved in working in this field for many years.

As stated during the assessments in Section, Mr Fangen says that there should be no special penal targeting disease transmission directly between humans. Mr Fangen believes that any criminal proceedings should take place using the general penalty provisions of bodily harm, and that these penal provisions should only be applied where the perpetrator acted with the intent to infect another, and the disease is transferred.

The rationale for this position is stated in the following that Mr Fangen has written on this matter:


New time. New inspiration.


HIV has been a part of our global reality for over 30 years. It is estimated that 60 million people have been infected during this period, 35 million of whom are alive today. For the first time in the history of HIV in the world, data show that the number of people that are newly diagnosed HIV positive is on a downward trend. This is primarily because many people with HIV have access to treatment. Treatment not only allows people with HIV to live a long healthy life, but the majority who are on treatment have a fully suppressed HIV viral load and are thus very unlikely to be infectious. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reviewed the latest research data and concludes that antiretroviral therapy reduces the risk of a person with HIV transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative person by 96%. UNAIDS has begun to talk about a world without HIV in its 2011-2015 strategic plan, ‘Getting To Zero’. Medical progress has thus changed the situation in a very positive direction. This change should also be reflected in legislation and case law.

However, the situation is not only positive. In some countries and in some groups, we are seeing an increase in the number of new HIV diagnoses. In Norway, the number of annual new HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men has tripled since 2002. This increase is very serious and requires that we strengthen and develop prevention among both HIV-negative and HIV-positive individuals.


Does HIV belong in the criminal code?


As person living with HIV, my primary focus has been on HIV when the committee has discussed details of the currently adopted provisions for serious communicable infectious diseases in the 2005 Penal Code § § 237 and 238. Most of my arguments stem from the experiences we have had with HIV in the applicable provisions of the 1902 Penal Code § 155, which for years has rightly been called the ‘HIV paragraph’. As you know, this is not an HIV-specific law, but in practice it has, almost without exception, been used to prosecute HIV. There are only a few cases where it has been applied with another communicable disease (respectively, hepatitis B and hepatitis C).

I think that HIV-related work, both in terms of caring for people with HIV, and preventing new infections, has not well been served by such legislation, which stigmatises  those of us with HIV and creates the perception that were are potential criminals, and does not take into account that people with HIV have the right to a good sex life. The legislation does not relate to the psycho-social challenges it means to live with HIV, and is not adapted to the fact that the reduced quality of life and difficulty in coping with safer sex are often intertwined. The legislation has not been clear on what constitutes unlawful sexual behaviour, and criminal liability is not consistent in relation to current knowledge about HIV and the risk of transmission.

Furthermore, I believe that the implementation of this legislation violates the fundamental principles of equality before the law. It seems as if the law is both random and unfair when only a few cases have been filed in recent years, despite the fact that several hundred people are diagnosed with HIV each year. It also seems unfair and counterproductive that all responsibility should rest on those of us who are familiar with our own HIV status, when we know that many are not aware of their own status and that new infections require HIV-negative individuals to choose to have unsafe sex.

In light of the increasing number of new HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men, one can rightly ask what does that suggest for this law in terms of HIV prevention? My contention is that it has not served its purpose, whether viewed from a public health perspective or an individual prevention perspective. HIV is no longer a threat to public health, as one assumed it was going to be early in the 1980s. We have been aware of this for many years now. Even before effective treatment arrived, this was a fact. Nevertheless, it seems that the ‘epidemic’ mentality lingers in the minds of many people.

A public health perspective, however, is important when it comes to the spread of other communicable diseases through air, water and food. I have therefore, together with a committee unanimously decided that § 238 should be amended to apply only to such infections, see chapter 11 and the committee draft laws in Chapter 14

It is not through criminal law that we reduce the spread of HIV. I believe that HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are solely a health issue. That’s where the focus should and must be, if one wants to prevent more infections. This means that we must change our mindset and change our course from criminal regulation to a health-related approach. Both partners should be responsible for their own sexual health, but this should not be linked to punishment. I do not believe that criminal law is a suitable tool for regulating health-related behaviours. Using the Penal Code, however, can make it appear as if the Government has been pro-active on this issue when instead it actually creates a false sense of security.




I believe that one should not criminalise unprotected sex and consequently the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. In sexual relations between two equal  partners who voluntarily decide to have sex, no heed is given to criminalisation / criminal law at home, regardless of whether HIV is transmitted or not. I believe that punishment should only be used in cases where you can prove that someone has intended to transmit a communicable disease and succeeded in doing this. Then the general provisions on bodily harm can be used, but in all other cases general laws on ‘offences against the person’ should not be used.

My suggestion therefore implies a clear decriminalisation, as I suggest that prosecutions should only occur where there is intent in the form of wilful intent and infection actually occurs. Transmission that occurs through dolus eventualis [recklessness] should, I suggest, not be prosecuted, even if infection actually occurs. This also applies to cases where there is only a negligent state of mind. If there has only been the potential for exposure, i.e. infection has not occurred, as I have already suggested, this should not be punished.


People with HIV – an untapped resource


Those of us who are living with HIV want to be involved in reducing infection rates. We want to be “part of the solution” and not be seen as a “problem”. Just as our society desires that all groups of patients are equal partners in health, I believe that people with HIV in particular are an important group to include. I think we are an untapped resource in prevention. We have unique knowledge in that can say something about why we were infected. This knowledge has so far not been made use of – no one asks us about possible underlying / contributory reasons why we were infected. Here, there is a great potential in terms of prevention of new infections, and we want to be involved in this work.


Common goals


Whatever we may think of the Penal Code as all actors within the HIV field (whether government, organisation or activist) a common goal is to prevent people from becoming infected with HIV.

How do we reach this goal? Measures should focus on the HIV-positive and HIV-negative. We must strengthen and set clear requirements for disease control. We need to improve the coping ability of all people living with HIV. We need more testing, more often. Those who are newly diagnosed who wish to start treatment should be allowed to do so. We need to focus on the importance of risk/harm reduction, and realise that it can make a substantial contribution to ‘traditional’ prevention. Doing even something right is better than doing nothing at all.

There is no reason that Norway might not become the best in the world in this area – we have the knowledge, skills and the economy. We have a clear situation, and we are able to reach everyone.

Sexually transmitted infections are a part of our shared reality. It’s not just HIV that is increasing in scope, but other infections. There are an increasing number of challenges, such as treatment-resistant gonorrhoea. We do not yet know the extent to which this will continue and what consequences will ensue. The more times a person is treated for a sexually transmitted infection, the greater the risk of complications or of developing resistance potentially resulting in a chronic condition. Although this information has reached the majority of the population it does not change the habit of having unprotected sex. We can surmise this from the ever increasing number of cases of sexually transmitted infections.

We should find a way to prepare a comprehensive plan as to how Norway should tackle all areas of sexual health. This plan must address both the dark and light sides of sexuality and must deal with sexuality throughout our life. Such a plan must aim to enhance the general population’s sexual health, while also dealing with special measures for vulnerable groups with special challenges, such as gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men, refugees, asylum seekers and their families.

This could be done by a committee that will have the mandate to prepare an action plan to enhance overall sexual health, including prevention of sexually transmitted infections. The current national strategic plan for improving sexual health is too one-sided by focusing on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. Such a committee should have representatives of health authorities as well as representatives of relevant groups and relevant organisations.


National Action Plan


There are many HIV-positive people who believe that the National Action Plan ‘Acceptance and Coping, 2009-2014’ is a very important and appropriate plan for HIV prevention efforts. Here are six ministries and several agencies that are committed to comprehensive efforts in HIV-related work by defining objectives and strategic actions in a number of areas. Some of this is already implemented, but much remains to be done, and the recent mid-term conference showed that things are tough and that there is great frustration among the players.

What has been implemented includes the initiation of the first learning and activity courses for people with HIV. This course was developed through a partnership between The Health Information Centre and Department of Infectious Diseases, both at Oslo University Hospital, and the newly established Council for Patients with HIV has also contributed. Here, among other things, the mastery of sex life is an important part. This has been a successful pilot project that is supposed to be a constant for all who are living with HIV, and to all who are diagnosed with HIV, regardless of nationality, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We believe this is an important service for this patient group that until now has received little follow-up beyond the purely medical field. Another important measure implemented under the HIV plan is the training of health professionals who work with people with HIV to assist in their conversations with patients about changes in health-related behaviours, including sexual behaviour. The tool used is a method called motivational interviewing (MI) which increases the patient’s motivation to change. In 2011 almost 100 health professionals participated in such courses organised by the Directorate of Health. More such courses are needed, and these courses should be offered at different levels, so that MI is an integral part of care.

Such courses for both patients and healthcare providers is something that can increase both the efficacy and quality of life for people with HIV and are therefore very important health promotion and HIV prevention measures. Earlier initiation of treatment and increased focus on testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are other measures that work to prevent new infections.

Apart from the above-mentioned exceptions, very few of the other parts of the HIV plan have been completed. Why has this happened? Why has this work come to a standstill? Why have we not managed to achieve several more goals outlined in the plan? Is it due to a lack of real will of the health authorities and other ministries to drive this plan forward? Have they declared themselves satisfied with making a good plan, and then delegated the responsibility for implementation to civil society and health care providers? Success requires national management and monitoring.

The way forward – a new tool offers new opportunities


I believe we have a unique opportunity now to show other countries how HIV and other sexual transmitted infections can and should be dealt with in a constructive and inclusive manner. By focusing on sexual health in general, and for the whole population, we could experience a reduction of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. We must work to motivate and to inspire each individual and thus safeguard the best interests of society.

It’s a new era that should inspire all who live and work in this field. We know so much more now than when HIV was incorporated into the Penal Code. We have completely different opportunities today to fight this virus, by helping as many as possible to independently maintain their health. This is where we can help to reverse the negative trend we are experiencing nationally, and it will also give us an opportunity to show the way internationally. There are many eyes focused on Norway these days who are most interested in how we choose to move forward with this challenge. We have a responsibility to make this our opportunity to achieve the very best possible outcome.


US: Public health experts and politicians support advocacy to modernise Iowa’s HIV law

Activism to modernise the unscientific, unjust and stigmatising HIV-specific criminal statute in Iowa is heating up.  Last month, the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group voted to support advocacy efforts to have HIV treated like other similar conditions and threats to public health. To accomplish this, they have called for the repeal of Iowa’s HIV criminalisation statute.

Next Monday, October 15th in the state capital, Des Moines, there will be another of a series of planned CHAIN/Sero Project community forums highlighting these efforts. All Iowa legislators within a 30 mile radius of Des Moines have been invited and Iowa Senator Matt McCoy (Democrat), who earlier this year introduced a bill to repeal and modernise the law, will be in attendance.  Although the bill didn’t make it out of subcommittee, he plans to reintroduce another in the legislative session that begins in January.

HIV is not a crime: Monday 15 Oct, 6:30pm at the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines,1800 Bell Ave, Des Moines, Iowa. covered the last community forum, held in Mason City in September, in their story, ‘Groups call for revising HIV disclosure statute.’

The state of Iowa currently has one of the strictest HIV laws in the nation, making the lack of disclosure a Class B felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison and a lifetime of sex offender status.

The statute makes no exception for lack of transmission of the HIV virus, nor does it take into account the fact that a person infected with HIV is taking the prescribed medication and has very little or no chance of passing it on.

Gay rights groups and others, including the Iowa Department of Public Health, are calling for modernization of the 1998 statute to focus penalties only on intentional or documented transmission of the HIV virus.

They say Iowa’s law is having the unintended effect of discouraging individuals from undergoing HIV testing and from obtaining access to medications that could save their lives and the lives of everyone with whom they may have intimate contact.

Iowa, which has a relatively low HIV incidence rate, ranks second in the nation in prosecutions for nondisclosure.

Pictured Left to Right: Iowa State Representative Sharon Steckman and State Senator Amanda Ragan, CHAIN community organizer and Sero Advisory Board Member, Tami Haught leading Iowa’s campaign to modernize the HIV criminalization law and Sero Advisory Board Member and Activist, Nick Rhoades at a community forum in Mason City on Iowa’s HIV Criminalization Law on Monday, September 10, 2012.

(Picture courtesy of The Sero Project)

Reproduced below is the press release from CHAIN (Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network) announcing the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group vote and providing background to their advocacy.

HIV Community Planning Group Supports Repeal of Iowa HIV Criminlization Statute

Des Moines, September 25, 2012

In an historic move, the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group has voted to support advocacy efforts to have HIV treated like other similar conditions and threats to public health. To accomplish this, they have called for the repeal of Iowa’s HIV criminalization statute.

Iowa, like most states, has a law that prohibits intentional transmission of communicable diseases. This statute, Iowa Code 139A.20 is part of public health code. HIV, however, is covered by a separate criminal code, Iowa Code 709C, which makes exposing someone to HIV without their consent a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Repeal of 709C would allow HIV to be covered by the same public health code that governs other infectious diseases.

The National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors has called for review of HIV criminalization statutes to bring them in line with contemporary science and knowledge about the real routes, risks, and consequences of HIV transmission. The Iowa Department of Public Health has echoed the call for review of the statute. In a letter to the editor of The Des Moines Register on July 29, Randy Mayer, Chief of the Bureau of HIV, STD, and Hepatitis, asked that HIV be treated in the same way as other serious infectious diseases.

“Testing and treatment are our best tools for fighting the epidemic in Iowa Research has now demonstrated that the statutes haven’t had the intended effect of promoting disclosure. We believe that our public health efforts will be more successful without having to fight the stigma that these statutes can create,” said Mayer.

“Having the prestige and expertise of the HIV Community Planning Group working to repeal Iowa’s criminalization statute is vitally important,” said Tami Haught, an HIV+ Nashua resident who is coordinating CHAIN’s statewide campaign to reform the Iowa statute. “The members of the CPG include some of the best-informed and most respected public health professionals and community advocates combating HIV We believe their recognition that the criminalization statute is hurting the public health will be persuasive with legislators.”

Iowa’s statute 709C imposes harsh penalties on persons with HIV who cannot prove they disclosed their HIV status in advance to sex partners. About 25 Iowans with HIV have been charged to date, with some convictions resulting in lengthy sentencing and lifetime sex offender registration requirements, even though HIV was not transmitted and there was little or no risk of it being transmitted.

The statute has been criticized by public health officials, legal experts, and patient advocates in Iowa and across the country as counter-productive, discriminatory, and contributing to further stigmatization of people with HIV. About 36 U.S. states and territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes Originally intended to slow HIV transmission, these laws were typically passed years ago when much less was known about HIV transmission A growing body of research shows how these statutes drive stigma, discourage testing, and are making the epidemic worse.

“HIV criminalization discourages people from getting tested—you can’t be prosecuted if you don’t know your HIV status—yet we know that most new infections are transmitted by people who have not yet gotten tested,” said Jordan Selha, co-chair of Iowa’s Community Planning Group “It’s time we treat HIV like other communicable diseases and use public health science rather than criminal law to guide our approaches to prevention No other disease is singled out as a criminal threat in this way.”

CHAIN has coordinated a statewide campaign to educate and mobilize communities to lobby lawmakers to review the statute when the legislature goes into session in January 2013. They have held community forums in Mason City and Ames.

You can help efforts to repeal the statute by contacting your state legislators and the governor’s office and asking that Iowa Code 709C be repealed. CHAIN will be holding an educational forum on October 15th at the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines and at Simpson College in Indianola on January 16, 2013.

The HIV Community Planning Group promotes, through an ongoing participatory process, effective HIV programming in Iowa in order to reduce the spread of HIV and to provide access to services for those infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandated community planning for HIV prevention in 1993. The process is designed to create a collaborative effort between public health and the communities they serve.

CHAIN is very excited to have the support of the Iowa HIV Community Planning Group. To join CHAIN’s listserve or get involved with CHAIN and the education and mobilization campaign, contact tami.haught2012(at), or follow CHAIN on Facebook.

Sweden: Majority of MPs want to reform HIV disclosure obligation and ‘HIV exposure’ criminal liability

Two articles commemorating 30 years of HIV in Sweden in Svenska Dagbladet by journalist Tobias Brandel suggest that public – and political – opinion is being positively impacted by a two-year campaign by RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education), HIV-Sweden, and RFSL (the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights) to raise awareness and advocate against overly-broad HIV criminalisation.

The first article, with the headline, ‘HIV-positive convicted harsher in Sweden‘ focuses on the fact that although HIV has been transformed from a fatal to a chronic disease, more people with HIV have been jailed in Sweden in the 2000s than in the 1980s and ’90s combined.

The second, with the headline, ‘HIV-law divides Government’ highlights the fact that a majority of MPs want to revise both the Communicable Diseases Act (with its ‘information obligation’) and the criminal law that currently allows prosecutions for people with HIV for potential or perceived HIV exposure as well as transmission. However, there are divisions within both the coalition Government and the leading opposition parties.

Since these articles are the most up to date descriptions of the current moves towards law and policy reform in Sweden, I am including (in English via Google translate, with slight amendments for clarity) the full text of both articles below.

This is the Google-translated version, read the original article here

When Joakim Berlin received his diagnosis, HIV was a death sentence.

“The big question my relatives asked was when I was going to die. Of course, I thought it would go pretty quickly,” he says.

It was 1991, five years before the arrival of antiretroviral drugs. Today he leads a “totally normal” life.

“Sometimes I get side effects such as cramps and fatigue. But HIV’s biggest impact has been on my social life. Human ignorance is problematic. The fear is still there.” Neither legislation nor case law has followed the progress of medicine. Although HIV has been transformed from a fatal to a chronic disease more people with HIV have been jailed in Sweden in the 2000s than in the 1980s and ’90s combined. Anyone who has HIV – and knows it – and has unprotected sex with another person is at risk of prosecution for ‘aggravated assault’, ‘attempted aggravated assault’ or ‘creating danger’.

The last year has seen four such convictions in Sweden,  according to a review by Svenska Dagbladet. All have resulted in prison sentences – even though they were not convicted of infecting their sexual partners. Only in one case was found to be HIV-positive plaintiff, but failed to clarify whether it was the offender who infected him.

A total of 44 people have convicted of crimes related to HIV since the late 1980s. This makes Sweden one of the countries in the world with the largest number of prosecutions in relation to the number of HIV-positive people, according to the Global Criminalisation Scan.

Sweden was also singled out as a bad example of how the law is used against people with HIV at the International AIDS Conference in Washington last summer. Even UNAIDS, the UN organisation for HIV / AIDS, criticises Sweden.

Ake Örtqvist, an infectious disease physician for Stockholm County Council, is critical of the Swedish court’s reasoning over risk and intent.

“The courts judge very differently which is very unfortunate. Courts and prosecutors should have an increased knowledge about the disease and the concept of risk,” he says.

Last year Denmark abolished a law that criminalises people with HIV referencing the current effective HIV drugs.

“The impact that treatment has in lowering viral load and infectiousness is very real, even if it is scientifically always hard to say zero. I think the courts reasoning is odd and they should embrace the fact that infection risk today is extremely small. One must ask whether it is reasonable to judge according to the Penal Code when the infection is well controlled and transmission has not occurred,” said Jan Albert, Professor of Infectious Disease at the Karolinska Institute. In other words, the virus is spread very rarely by “HIV-men” as the condemned is usually called in the media. The real vectors are people who do not know they have HIV and therefore do not receive treatment.

According to the Communicable Diseases Act HIV-positive individuals must inform their sex partners of their status before having sex. Although it is not possible to judge according to the Infectious Diseases Act so courts often refer to information obligations.

Both RFSL and RFSU argue that the law is actually counter-productive.

“Of course you should tell if you have HIV before sex, but you should not risk punishment if you fail to do so. Criminalisation can also lead to a false sense of security, to believe that the person who is not saying anything does not have HIV,” says RFSU President Kristina Ljungros.

She also believes that the prosecutions may deter people from testing. Even the UN-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law concludes in a new report that criminalisation contributes to fewer people knowing their HIV status.

Preliminary data from a new U.S. study, received by Svenska Dagbladet, supports these ideas. The Sero Project, in collaboration with Eastern Michigan University interviewed more than 2000 HIV-positive individuals in the United States. Half of the respondents believe that it is reasonable to avoid HIV testing for fear of prosecution, and one in four say they know one or more individuals who chose not to test for fear of being prosecuted.

Joakim Berlin has lived with the virus for over 20 years and works at Positive Group West [part of HIV Sweden] as well as being a member of RFSL’s board.

“It is the responsibility of both parties to protect themselves, so you cannot have laws that criminalise only one party,” he said.

Is it not reasonable to tell your sexual partner so that he can make an informed decision?

“I have the responsibility to ensure that you do not get HIV, and you have the responsibility to ensure that you are not putting yourself at risk,” he says. “The law places full responsibility on the HIV-positive person while everyone else thinks that they can do whatever they want without consequences. Most people get HIV from someone who does not know their HIV-positive status.”


This is the Google-translated version, view the original here

Legislation and case law surrounding HIV has not kept pace with developments in medicine, as Svenska Dagbladet showed yesterday. Although modern HIV treatment reduces infectiousness dramatically, the law is the same as in the 1980s. There is now a majority in parliament who want a review of the Communicable Diseases Act, which forces people with HIV to disclose their status before having sex.

“We think that the issue should be revisited. Our knowledge about HIV is changing rapidly. We can not have laws that are outdated,” says Barbro Westerholm, Liberal Party social policy spokesperson.

As previously reported to Svenska Dagbladet both infectious disease doctors and scientists are critical of Swedish courts that sentence HIV-positive people to prison for unprotected sex, despite there being no alleged transmission. As well as revisiting the Communicable Diseases Act, the Liberal Party would  like there to be a review of judicial practice.

The position of the Moderate Party is that there is no need for such a review, but the Party is now in discussion.

“We have not changed our minds, but we’re talking about it. It is clear that we must keep up with new facts and analyses. There is a debate,” says Mats Gerdau, a member of the social committee [which would recommend such a review to the Government].

The Centre Party is open to an amendment of the Penal Code in respect of how the courts reason about intentional and negligent [states of mind] – but they are clearly against removing the Communicable Diseases Act’s notification requirement.

“There is an information obligation for all diseases that are generally hazardous. It is completely illogical to say that it should be removed only for HIV,” says Anders W Jonsson, chairman of the social committee.

The Christian Democrats see no need for any kind of review. All four Alliance parties must agree before the law can be reviewed. The [opposition] Social Democrats, The Green Party and the Left are all clear that they want the information requirements to be removed for HIV.

“The law is counterproductive. It places responsibility solely on the person with HIV. It is a repressive law which, at worst, means people do not get tested,” says Eva Olofsson (Left), also a member of the social committee.

Agneta Luttropp (Greens), another member of the social committee, believes that the law creates a false sense of security.

“The responsibility to protect is on both sides, on both the person who may have HIV and the person who does not. We hope and believe that a change in the law could lead to people being more invested in having protected sex,” she says.

However, the Social Democrats want to keep the information obligation and do not believe that judicial practice needs to be reviewed.

US: Study finds criminalising alleged HIV non-disclosure an ineffective HIV prevention tool

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health by the leading US researcher into the impacts of HIV criminalisation, Carol Galletly J.D. and Ph.D., of the Center for AIDS Intervention Research at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has concluded that a New Jersey law requiring individuals with HIV to disclose their HIV-positive status to their sexual partners does not appear to be an effective HIV prevention intervention.

In the article ‘New Jersey’s HIV Exposure Law and the HIV-Related Attitudes, Beliefs, and Sexual and Seropositive Status Disclosure Behaviors of a Sample of Persons Living with HIV’, Galletly and colleagues surveyed 479 HIV-positive New Jersey residents between March and October 2010 about the New Jersey law that requires HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status to sexual partners.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C: 34-5

A person is guilty of a crime of the third degree if, knowing that he or she is infected with HIV, he or she commits an act of sexual penetration without the informed consent of the other person.

The study found that the law does not seem to be effective as an HIV prevention tool. Although 51 percent of study participants reported knowledge of the law, there was no difference between those aware and unaware of the law in terms of HIV disclosure, risky sex, and condom use.  In fact, most of the participants reported complying with the letter of the law for the previous year regardless of whether they were aware of the law or not.

Study abstract

An article by the CDC at summarises additional findings on HIV-related stigma and perceptions of responsibility for HIV prevention.

Knowledge of the law was not associated with negative outcomes for HIV-infected study participants. Persons aware of the law did not report greater social hostility toward persons with HIV or experience more discomfort with HIV-status disclosure or more HIV-related stigma. On the other hand, those who were not aware of the law perceived more social hostility toward HIV-infected persons, experienced greater HIV-related stigma, and were less comfortable with HIV-status disclosure.

The 479 study participants, who were aged 19 to 66 years, were 45 percent female and were approximately 66 percent African American, 16 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent Caucasian. When the researchers questioned them about responsibility for HIV prevention, 90 percent believed that an HIV-infected person bore at least half of the responsibility for ensuring that their seronegative partners did not contract the disease through sex, and 34 percent felt the HIV-infected person had the full responsibility.

Given that there were no differences in behaviours or attitudes towards HIV disclosure, safer sex or responsibility for HIV prevention between those aware of the law or not, and the very high risk of human rights violations and miscarriages of justice in the application of HIV disclosure laws, the study’s findings strongly suggest that HIV-specific criminal statutes criminalising HIV non-disclosure without consideration of actual risk and harm, and proof of a suitably culpable state of mind are bad laws that should be repealed.

HIV Criminalisation Discourages HIV Testing, Creates Disabling and Uncertain Legal Environment for People with HIV in U.S. (Press Release)

The SERO Project: National Criminalization Survey

Washington, D.C. July 25, 2012

Preliminary data from the Sero Project’s ground-breaking survey of more than two thousand people living with HIV (PLHIV) in the U.S., released July 25, 2012, at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., reveals HIV criminalization is a significant deterrent to testing, accessing care and treatment for HIV:

• One quarter of respondents (25.1%) indicated they knew one or more people who told them they did not want to get tested for HIV because of fear of prosecution if they tested positive; more than 5% indicated that “many people” have told them this.

• Almost half of respondents (49.6%) felt it could be reasonable for someone to avoid testing for HIV, and 41.6% felt it could be reasonable to avoid HIV treatment for fear of prosecution.

“We expected the survey to show criminalization is a deterrent to HIV testing, but these findings indicate it is an even bigger obstacle than previously believed,” said Laurel Sprague, the project’s principal investigator who is also Sero’s Research Director. “The community’s response has been tremendous; it is obvious there is tremendous concern about HIV criminalization. I look forward to further analysis of the survey responses, including of those who are HIV negative or do not know their HIV status, which will be released in a report later this year.”

Sean Strub, Sero’s executive director and the founder of POZ Magazine, said “This is a wake-up call for public health officials and policymakers who have failed to recognize the extent to which HIV criminalization hampers efforts to combat AIDS. We’ve known for years that HIV criminal statutes do not achieve their intended purpose, to reduce HIV transmission. Now it is clear that these statutes are driving the epidemic, because of how they fuel stigma and discourage HIV testing and accessing the treatment that reduces transmission.”

Strub and Sprague are both long‐term HIV survivors and advocates who have championed self‐empowerment for people with HIV to combat stigma and improve health outcomes for themselves and their communities. The 2,076 people living with HIV in the United States who responded to the Sero survey also painted a disturbing picture of a disabling legal environment for people with HIV:

• More than a third (38.4%) reported they worried a few times or frequently about being falsely accused of not disclosing their HIV positive status; amongst transgendered persons that cigure rose to 60%.

• Respondents in the Midwest (45.9%) and South (40.9%) were more likely to express fear about false accusations than those in the West (35.1%) and Northeast (32.3%).

• Just less than two‐thirds (62.7%) of respondents were not certain whether or not their state required people with HIV to disclose their status to a partner before having sex, with the uncertainty highest in the Northeast (72.4%) and West (71.3%) and South (61.6%) and lowest in the Midwest (40.4%).

• There were significant regional differences amongst those reporting that they were informed about potential criminal liability at the time of their diagnosis. The highest rate was in the Midwest (28.8%) and South (14.8%) and lower rates were seen in the West (7.5%) and Northeast (4.1%).

• Respondents also indicated a lack of clarity about what could subject them to prosecution (47.7% “not clear”, 30% “somewhat clear” and 22.3% “completely clear”). Men reported a greater lack of clarity on this point.

The top reasons cited for disclosure were that it is “the right thing to do”, “to have honest relationships” and “not cause harm to another” or “to protect their partner”, not that it was required by law or because of fear of criminal prosecution. More than 8 in 10 PLHIV in the study said that they believe that sexual partners share equally in the responsibility for HIV prevention.

The detailed survey, which required 20 to 25 minutes to complete, was conducted online in June and July of 2012, and is the first in‐depth examination of the effect of HIV criminalization on people with HIV and one of the largest surveys of people in the U.S. with HIV ever conducted. Further results and analysis will be released later in the year.

The Sero Project is a not‐for‐profit human rights organization combating HIV‐related stigma by working to end inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV for non‐disclosure of their HIV status, potential or perceived HIV exposure or HIV transmission.

The Sero Project is supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the H. van Ameringen Foundation as well as many individual supporters. Special thanks to POZ Magazine, the North American regional affiliate of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, the Positive Women’s Network, The Body and other community resources that assisted in survey promotion.

Special thanks also to Thom Riehle, Ian Anderson, Edwin Bernard, Regan Hofmann, Cecilia Chung, Julie Davids, Mark S. King and Alex Garner for their expertise and support.

Download the press release here.  More detailed preliminary data can be downloaded here.


Global Commission on HIV and the Law: an analysis of their HIV criminalisation recommendations

Today, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law finally issued its long-awaited report, ‘HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health.’  It was well worth the wait.

“Fundamentally unjust, morally harmful, and virtually impossible to enforce with any semblance of fairness, such laws impose regimes of surveillance and punishment on sexually active people living with HIV, not only in their intimate relations and reproductive and maternal lives, but also in their attempts to earn a living.”

That’s how the Chapter 2 of the report, focusing on the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, potential exposure and non-intentional transmission begins.  The rest of the chapter pulls no punches either.

Of course, the Global Commmission, and the report itself, cover much more than HIV criminalisation, and it pulls no punches recommending repeal of punitive laws impacting consensual same-sex sex, sex work, drug use and patent laws affecting access to HIV treatment.  However, since this blog – and the focus of my work – is specifically about HIV criminalisation I’m only going to focus on the six pages in the report (and five pages of references) that specifically addresses this issue. 

Five recommendations on HIV criminalisation: click on image to enlarge

To cut to the chase, the report recommends the following:

To ensure an effective, sustainable response to HIV that is consistent with human rights obligations:

2.1. Countries must not enact laws that explicitly criminalise HIV transmission, HIV exposure or failure to disclose HIV status. Where such laws exist, they are counterproductive and must be repealed. The provisions of model codes that have been advanced to support the enactment of such laws should be withdrawn and amended to conform to these recommendations.
2.2. Law enforcement authorities must not prosecute people in cases of HIV non-disclosure or exposure where no intentional or malicious HIV transmission has been proven to take place. Invoking criminal laws in cases of adult private consensual sexual activity is disproportionate and counterproductive to enhancing public health.
2.3. Countries must amend or repeal any law that explicitly or effectively criminalises vertical transmission of HIV. While the process of review and repeal is under way, governments must place moratoria on enforcement of any such laws.
2.4. Countries may legitimately prosecute HIV transmission that was both actual and intentional, using general criminal law, but such prosecutions should be pursued with care and require a high standard of evidence and proof.
2.5. The convictions of those who have been successfully prosecuted for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission must be reviewed. Such convictions must be set aside or the accused immediately released from prison with pardons or similar actions to ensure that these charges do not remain on criminal or sex offender records.

The first four points are consistent with the 2008 UNAIDS/UNDP Policy Brief recommendations but go further in terms of tone. For example, using “must” rather than “should”.

Point 2.3 on vertical transmission really needs no further explanation and should be implemented immediately. 

But what did the Commission mean by some of the recommendations, which, when you read them from the point of view of a legislator, or someone who can affect policy in the criminal justice system, might not be quite as clear as they could be?

And what about point 2.5 recommending that anyone imprisoned for HIV non-disclosure, potential exposure or non-intentional transmission have their case reviewed?  Although it doesn’t spell out the criteria for review, they should be consistent with the International Guidelines on HIV and Human Rights published by UNAIDS and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  Since 1998 they have recommended that in order for someone to be convicted, “the elements of foreseeability, intent, causality and consent [must be] clearly and legally established to support a guilty verdict….” If we now consider that the Commission recommends that only intentional and malicious transmission should be a crime, if the above criteria have not been met (and in most cases they have not), the Global Commission recommends immediate release from prison, a pardon and removal of criminal records (and in the US and Canada, removal from the sex offender registry).

I asked Professor Matthew Weait, who served as a member of the Technical Advisory Group for the Commission (the TAG), with particular responsibility for HIV criminalisation about how we should interpret recommendations 2.1, 2.2 and 2.4 in the real world.

The excellent working paper that he prepared for the Commission, The Criminalisation of HIV Exposure and Transmission: A Global Review is also now available to download. A second paper, Criminalisation and the Moral Responsibility for Sexual Transmission of HIV by Matthew and his fellow TAG member, Professor Scott Burris is also now available.

Q: In 2.1 Does the Commission only recommend repealing laws that explicitly criminalise non-disclosure, exposure or transmission?  What, for example, does that mean for Canada, which uses general laws to prosecute non-disclosure?

It’s a good question!  Before I answer it, can I emphasise that what I say here should in no way should be seen as reflecting the views or interpretation either of other TAG members, the Commissioners, or the UNDP Secretariat that provided logistical and other support.  They are personal views.  So – with that in mind – I think it’s important to read this Recommendation in the context of the Report as a whole. What is abundantly clear is that the Commission believes that only the actual and deliberate transmission of HIV may legitimately be criminalised, and all the Recommendations need to be read in that light. This means, in my view, that countries which criminalise HIV under their general laws are also being addressed here.  The reason is that in many such countries it is only HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure which is prosecuted in the criminal courts under general provisions which could also be used in the context of other diseases.  The fact that other diseases are not, or extremely rarely so, means that HIV is – to my mind – explicitly criminalised.  Just because HIV is criminalised under a general law doesn’t detract from the fact that such criminalisation is explicit in practice.  You’ll have to follow this up with the Commission though!

Q: In 2.2 Does the Commission mean that law enforcement authorities can prosecute for HIV exposure and non-disclosure where there is proof of intentional or malicious transmission?

I don’t think so, no.  The “must not” construction of the Recommendation does not imply the opposite, especially where to read it this way would be against the entire tenor of the Report. It is very important, in my view, that law enforcement authorities do not take this as a “green light” – not only because it would lead to over-criminalisation (belt and braces) – but it would serve no purpose.  

Q: In 2.4 Does the Commission suggest that prosecutions can still take place that aren’t malicious?  How do you prosecute “with care”?

This Recommendation is in permissive language, similar to that used in the UNAIDS 2008 Policy Guidance, and does not – I think this is important – mandate criminalisation as such.  It seems to me to be intended to provide states with a “let out” clause, reflecting the views of many in the wider HIV policy community, and is politically pragmatic and realistic. Some might think it is a unfortunate that this is in a list of Recommendations, but I think I understand why it has been. It might have been better to phrase the Recommendation in the form, “If countries wish to criminalise HIV, they should only do so in cases of actual and intentional transmission”, but I don’t think we should get too hung up on the exact language here. As with the other Recommendations, it has to be read in the light of everything else in the Report, where it is clear that Commission is arguing for the most restrictive approach possible. It will also, by the way, be important to see whether the Report itself addresses in more detail what is meant by intentional and malicious. Different jurisdictions interpret these terms is in a variety of ways – some equating them with knowledge of status, some with knowledge of the risk of transmission, and some with deliberate or purposive intent (or a combination of all these). The fact that the Commission uses the term “malicious” in Recommendation 2.2 suggests that it has in mind deliberate and purposive intention

As for question of pursuing prosecutions ‘with care’, it is clear that the Commission has affirmed what has been emphasised in a number of recent policy documents, including a recent initiative of UNAIDS.  The highest (I would personally have preferred that, rather than “high”) is necessary when dealing with liability based on expert evidence (as transmission cases typically are, at least where the scientific analysis facilities are available).

Catherine Hanssens highlights the problem with US HIV disclosure laws

This morning, the Global Commission held a press conference that featured several of the Commissioners: US Congresswoman Barbara Lee; Canada’s Stephen Lewis (Co-Director and Co-Founder of AIDS-Free World); and His Excellency Mr. Festus Gontebanye Mogae, former President of Botswana.

Three members of civil society also participated: Nevena Ciric, More than Help, AIDS +, Serbia; Maurice Tomlinson, AIDS-Free World, Jamaica and Nick Rhoades, Positive Justice Project, The Center for HIV Law and Policy, United States.

Nick Rhoades spoke with clarity and power about the lessons learned from his own terrible experience. HIV criminalisation wastes money, harms prevention and human rights, he concluded. Return sanity, science and justice to HIV laws.

I was convicted in 2008 under Iowa’s law titled “criminal transmission of HIV” although HIV was not actually transmitted.  This involved a one-time, consensual sexual encounter with another adult.  My viral load was undetectable, I used a condom – and again, I did not transmit HIV.  However, none of these facts mattered in the eyes of the law.  The judge imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and the requirement to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life.  After sentencing, the judge was subject to a significant amount of pressure from advocates in the U.S. and even Europe – requesting my sentence be reconsidered.  After being incarcerated for over a year, he released me on five years probation, but I am of course, still a sex offender. [Nick is now appealing his conviction.]

During my course through the correctional system, I transferred facilities four times.  Each time I was transferred, I would be either without medications or missing certain medications for a period of days. And when I was released, I had lost my place on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, so I was put on a wait-list. The correctional system offered no assistance in finding a social worker or medication assistance once I was released from prison.

The personal toll this has taken on me and my family and friends cannot be measured.  This has caused great mental anguish, financial burdens and major professional barriers for me, now that I am a sex offender.  I have been virtually unemployable.  I am fortunate enough now to be employed from home by The Center for HIV Law & Policy, but most aren’t so lucky.  To this day, I deal with terrible depression.  It’s not easy.

What’s more, the price to enforce these archaic laws is considerable.  The approximate cost to tax-payers to incarcerate just one individual in Iowa – factoring in the cost of medications and routine medical care is approximately sixty-five to seventy thousand dollars annually. This cost is borne by tax-payers and doesn’t include the lost income and contribution to society that incarceration causes. Then consider the price to supervise people convicted under these laws while on probation or parole – often being forced to add in the costs of monitoring offenders on the sex offender registry – and the public is paying an incredible amount of money for enforcing laws that, more often than not, are punishing people for not transmitting HIV.  In many cases, such as mine, taxpayers are paying for the enforcement of laws that punish people with HIV who actually follow the primary prevention messages of public health counselors: stay in treatment, keep your viral load as close to undetectable as possible, use condoms – and otherwise, keep sex safe[r].

These laws enhance stigma that cripples people living with HIV/AIDS from accessing services. They make disclosure issues much more difficult due to ramifications one may face with a mere accusation. I also believe stigma, made thicker by these laws, is keeping people from getting tested.

Furthermore, I have been a member of the Iowa HIV Community Planning group – chaired by the Iowa Department of Public Health – since 2009.  I see all the data.  This year, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s prevention-based budget faced a 25% decrease which will eventually grow to 55% over the next five years. Dollars marked to treat people in care are next for slashing.  Those in care and with undetectable viral loads are up to 96% less likely to transmit the virus, yet we are cutting funding away from proven HIV prevention programs while increasing costly prosecution and imprisonment of people like me living with HIV.  When one considers that there is no evidence that these laws have any impact on people’s sexual behaviors, it is clearly not an effective use of our resources while infringing on individuals’ human rights and working in conflict with public health goals.

Criminal laws and policies that target people based on their HIV status must be repealed.  Please support Congressperson Barbara Lee’s “Repeal HIV Discrimination Act” now, and engage with those who are promoting the movement to return sanity, science and justice to the law’s treatment of HIV.

Following Nick’s powerful testminony, much of the rest of the Global Commission press conference mostly focused on HIV criminalisation in the US and Canada – as it should since the vast majority of prosecutions take place in these two countries, a fact highlighted by Stephen Lewis and echoed by Nick Rhoades.

I was very honoured to be quoted in the report.

I asked Rep. Barbara Lee how it is posssible to change these bad laws when it appears that they have popular support. “Modernising these laws won’t be easy,” she said. “But I have to tell you that the public isn’t really aware of these laws. Once you explain it to them, they’re shocked. What we have to do is mount public education campaigns about these laws. At state level, many state legislators don’t know these laws are on the books, and they can change them if there is the political will. So we need public and political education and civil society support for a political movement to hold politicians accountable. But… yes we can!”

As for other countries using general criminal laws to prosecute non-disclosure, potential exposure and transmission, in the next few months UNAIDS will be releasing a policy consideration document that will help countries understand exactly how to limit their application through a better understanding of HIV science as well as public health and human rights principles. 

There’s going to be a lot more happening around the Global Commission’s Report and all of the amazing evidence the Commission accrued during it’s two year existence.  I recommend spending time on the Global Commission website where you will now find a treasure trove of documents to help further anti-criminalisation advocacy and eventually lead to HIV justice for all.

Greece: Matthew Weait on the moral panic over the mass arrest of female sex workers with HIV

Matthew Weait, Professor of Law and Policy at Birkbeck College, University of London guest blogs on Wednesday’s arrest of 17 HIV-positive women who allegedly worked illegally as sex workers.  Greek authorities are accusing them of intentionally causing serious bodily harm. 

The arrest in Athens of 17 female sex workers living with HIV this week is outrageous on many levels. It is not that a significant number of them have had their right to respect for private life violated (12 had their photographs published on a police website), nor that there is uncertainty as to whether the women concerned knew their HIV status, nor that the women were arrested after a screening process by the Greek Centre for Disease Control (how voluntary was that, I wonder?), nor that they have been charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm (a charge almost impossible to prove, and on the facts arising simply from having unprotected sex with clients – according to news reports it is unclear whether any clients have actually been infected as a result of sex with the women concerned). All these things are bad enough, but what is really appalling is the way in which it is the women who have been identified as the legitimate locus of control and the subject of punitive state response.

It is appalling, but it is entirely to be expected. There is a long and ignoble tradition of locating the source of STIs in women in general, and female sex workers in particular. In the context of HIV criminalization this tradition has reached a new peak (or, perhaps better, a new trough). Put simply, HIV criminalization has compounded, and added a new and frightening dimension to, the longstanding idea that female sex workers are a source of pollution threatening the cleanliness of men. It is not just that by identifying them as the risk and the cause of any harm men may suffer, the men concerned (and men in general) are able to divert attention from their own responsibility (though this is important), it is that criminalization has provided an opportunity, in this context, to reinforce the idea that women are inherently dirty, that HIV is dirty, and that cleansing (what a frightening word that is) through punishment, containment and deportation (the women in Athens were foreign nationals) is a reasonable and justifiable response.

Of this logic we should be very afraid. The elimination of dirt at a political level has found expression, at its most extreme, in the slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis, in the apartheid regime of South Africa, in eugenic science and rules relating to miscegenation. It is evident in any attempt by a society to maintain its ‘purity’ by imposing border controls that require would-be immigrants to undergo tests that filter out the sick and unhealthy.

At an individual level, the elimination or exclusion of dirt – or rather the practices, attitudes and response mechanisms that attempt to achieve this (prosecution, imprisonment, deportation) mirror a wider political project in which the HIV positive body is punished, marginalised and devalued because it represents everything that is feared in post-modernity. The HIV positive body is a paradigm site for repressive legal and political response because of its capacity to reproduce itself in the body of those for whom it represents a threat to physical and ontological security, and because that reproduction occurs – and can only occur – through the merging of bodies via the co-mingling of their ‘inside’. Elizabeth Grosz, an Australian feminist theorist has put this better than anyone else when she explains that:

Body fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside. They affront a subject’s aspiration toward autonomy and self-identity. They attest to a certain irreducible ‘dirt’ or ‘disgust’, a horror of the unknown or the unspecifiable that permeates, lingers, and at times leaks out of the body, a testimony to the fraudulence or impossibility of the ‘clean’ and ‘proper’. (Grosz, 1994: 193-4)

For Grosz, it is women’s bodies, their unstable and destabilizing corporeality, that serve both to affirm men’s belief in their own inviolability and, thus, the bounded body (i.e. male bodies) as the normal, universal and legitimate form of subjectivity. The seminal flows that emit from male bodies, reduced to a by-product of sexual pleasure rather than conceived as a manifestation of immanent materiality, and as something that is directed, linear and non-reciprocal, enables men to sustain the fantasy of the closed body and of the possibility of control over it. The socio-cultural and psychological dimension of Mackinnon’s (in)famous assertion about the power necessarily instantiated in heterosexual relations (‘Man fucks woman: subject verb object’ (Mackinnon, 1982: 541), this fantasy is a prerequisite for the maintenance of masculinity, and of the mastery – over women, over nature – that masculinity enables, or which is its prerogative.

To receive flow, or to be in position where there is a risk of flow in the other direction, is to be identified with the feminine (whether as woman, or as passive homosexual) and to lose the phallic advantage; to acknowledge the essential materiality of the body, that its flows are not merely by-products of the body but constitutive of it, is an admission that strikes at the heart of masculinity, at the security which is its privilege, and at the legitimacy of the hierarchised and gendered socio-economic order upon which its privileged status depends. Understood in these terms, it is unsurprising that it is women’s bodies (despite the relatively low risk of female to male sexual transmission) that are – within the discourse that frames the heterosexual HIV epidemic– characterised as the source of infection. As Grosz explains, this discourse is one that makes

… women, in line with the conventions and practices associated with contraceptive procedures, the guardians of the sexual fluids of both men and women. Men seem to refuse to believe that their body fluids are the ‘contaminants’. It must be women who are the contaminants. Yet, paradoxically, the distinction between a ‘clean’ woman and an ‘unclean’ one does not come from any presumption about the inherent polluting properties of the self-enclosure of female sexuality, as one might presume, but is a function of the quantity, and to a lesser extent the quality, of the men she has already been with. So she is in fact regarded as a kind of sponge or conduit of other men’s ‘dirt’. (Grosz, 1994: 197)

Given Grosz’s analysis it is hardly unsurprising that the Centre for Disease Control in Greece had 1500 calls from concerned men once the story about the brothels broke. Far from accepting any responsibility they might have for having sex which carried the risk of STI and HIV infection, it was entirely to be expected that their concern was whether the women might have infected them, and that the legal response was to round up the women. Patriarchy is, after all, a Greek word.

The response of the Greek health Minister, Andreas Leverdos, prompted in part by a massive rise in HIV infections in Greece in recent months (954 new infections were reported in 2011, a 57 percent increase from the previous year), and also – surely – by the political value in deporting non-nationals at a time when Greece is in economic meltdown, was to suggest criminalizing unprotected sex in brothels. He is reported as saying,

 Let’s make this a crime. It’s not all the fault of the illegally procured woman, it’s 50 percent her fault and 50 percent that of the client, perhaps more because he is paying the money.

On the face of it this response suggests some recognition of shared responsibility. However, it is a pipe-dream – I suggest – to imagine that doing this (even if it were politically viable, which I doubt) would have the effect of eradicating the deeply entrenched view that female sex workers are to blame for their clients ills; nor is criminalization of sexual behaviour that carries the risk of HIV infection a productive or constructive answer to anything. It would simply perpetuate the idea that punitive laws are an appropriate response to what is properly understood as a public health issue that should be addressed through wider awareness, education and an affirmation of the importance of taking care of, and respecting, ourselves and others.

(Reposted from Matthew Weait’s own blog, ‘The Times That Belong To Us’ with kind permission. You can also follow Matthew on Twitter @ProfWetpaint)